If you have been following this blog over the past few weeks, you know that I have taken on a project that might be loosely described as a book. To this point, that has been my approach. I’ve written about 4,000 words, separating them into “chapters’’ and developing a storyline, so it at least has the basic architecture of a book.
But the truth is, I am not sure what sort of book this is or should be – or even if it is a book at all.
The idea for this project came when I stumbled across a woman’s travel journal from a family vacation taken in August and September of 1930. Because it is written by a woman who makes no literary claims, her journal does not give as many insights into the family and their times. Instead, she dutifully details each stop on their 46-day journey from the beginning of the trip on Aug. 7, 1930 until its end in New York harbor on Sept. 22.
As a result, the family remains pretty much strangers at the end of the journey. This should not be surprising; the journal was never written for an audience. Instead, its purpose was to preserve the details of the trip for a time when memories might become hazy. If that is the case, the journal achieves its purpose.
Still, I wanted to know more about this family, mainly because of the parallels that exists between now and then. In August of 1930, the country was about 10 months into the Great Depression. At that time, unemployment was at 8.5 percent – which is the same rate as it is now in the Late Depression, if you will permit me to name it.
At the time of the trip, I wondered if the family had any sense of just how bad things would get, with an unemployment rate of 25 percent and the desperate decade that had just begun.
The family stayed at the finest accommodations during the trip, which suggests that the doctor – I take him to be the author’s husband, but he is never mentioned by name – was either immune to the hard times that had fallen on the country or had greatly underestimated the severity of the times.
Maybe this family had the sort of wealth that protected them from the degradation that befell so many in that era. That's probably true today, too.
I suspect then, as now, the impact of the hard times were not evenly distributed. Back then, even in the worst of times, 75 percent of the people still had their jobs. Their hardships were of a different kind and degree from those who lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their hope, lost their dignity.
Maybe it will be like that this time, too. I know that it's a lot easier to be optimistic when you have a good job, when you can pay your bills, when hard times means vacationing close to home and driving a four-year-old car for another couple of years.
But when you have lost your job, when you haven't been able to make a mortgage payment for several months, when you go to a job fair and find 15,000 applying for a few hundred low-paying jobs, well, you begin to wonder how in the world you are going to make it. And then you turn on the TV and some anchor-person who brings home six figures tries to feel your pain. The admit that things are likely to get worse before they get better. That's an easy assessment to make when it holds no real personal terror. So, they tell us about how to clip coupons, as if that's the magic cure. They assure us that there will be a happy ending, that everything will eventually be OK. And they are right. It will get better. For them.
I would love to have known the doctor’s assessment of the times in which he lived. The grave questions that hovered over the country then are much the same as the ones we are asking now.
And it is this parallel that I find most intriguing about this journal. Granted, to read a first-hand account of such a trip is great amusement in itself. Today, people can replicate their journey, but cannot experience it as they did. Some of the hotels they stayed at do not exist or do not exist as they did. You can still drive from Portland to Los Angeles, but it’s a profoundly different drive than it was back then, when such a drive would have been considered an adventure. Today, it’s a uneventful drive down a freeway.
I point this out to explain why I have not written another chapter in the book.
It seems to me that I need to know much more about the era if I am to recreate the trip with any degree of accuracy. That means research, and lots of it.
Second, and perhaps more important, I need to know what the story really is.
There is an excellent chance that the book that I have started, the four chapters posted on this blog, will not survive, or will survive in a much truncated form.
From the start, the journal seemed to me to be primarily a device by which I could frame the the real storyk, whatever that is.
So what is the story?
I have no idea.
Initially, I thought it would be a novel, written in first person, but only coincidentally autobiographical. Now, I am not so sure. For one thing, the whole time travel genre has been done to death. A fresh perspective has yet to emerge, although it may yet.
More recently, I’ve started to wonder if the story really is more of a personal memoir. From the moment I was arrested for felony DUI, friends have urged me to write that story.
As I mentioned, the parallels between 1930 and 2009 are obvious and therefore relevant. My circumstances hardly mirror those of this family, of course, but perhaps that contrast lends its own value to the story.
There is also the possibility that the two have nothing in common, that in trying to blend them I am not unlike a writer who wants to write a book about, say, 18th Century farming techniques and 1960s women’s fashion.
So, as you can see, I’m in a fog at the moment that I can’t write through.
If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And thanks for reading!